Political Ritual among the Nacirema

The Nacirema, till now most famous for their unusual body rituals, are also quite well known for their political rituals; especially the unusual way they choose their headman.* Whereas many traditional societies choose their headman based on his demonstrated ability at skills related to the survival of the community, the Nacirema have chosen instead to hold a public contest, called an etabed.

In order to understand the etabed, it is first necessary to understand the patron-client relations underlying Nacirema power relations. Patrons, all of whom live in a specially designated neighborhood outside the current headman’s domicile, form a special council which then meets in advance of the etabed to select both the contestants and the rules of the contest. These rules are specially designed, like Trobriand Cricket matches (in which the home team is always the winner), to give the appearance of a contest despite the ritual nature of the spectacle.

Which is not to say that the winners and losers are pre-determined. Quite the contrary. Despite the scripted nature of the contest, the two contestants must maintain a demeanor which projects their virility without seeming too aggressive. Any failure to achieve this delicate balance will result in a loss of face for the contestant. Too aggressive and they will be considered incapable of remaining calm under pressure. Even worse, they may also be considered “rude.” On the other hand, being too passive or polite will make them seem lacking in passion as well as displaying insufficient concern for the wellbeing of their patrons.

One of the strangest aspects of the whole contest is that the winner or loser is not determined simply by the performance of the two men, but by a special class of purohits who are beholden to the same patrons as the two contestants. Even though many watch the etabed itself, popular sentiment is still largely determined by these purohits, who compete amongst themselves to weave the most convincing narrative as to why the contestant supported by their patron was the true victor.

* Till now, no woman has risen to this position. Although the rules don’t specifically prohibit participation by women, the nature of the contest makes it difficult for women to compete.

8 thoughts on “Political Ritual among the Nacirema

  1. Ya, another strange aspect of this ritual event is that the nacirema public/common folk will spend the subsequent weeks completely fixated on–and fighting about–micro details of each headman’s actions and behaviors during the event…momentary facial expressions, language choices, dress, demeanor, consumption of H2O, posture, etc. All of this will become prime material for public political discussion and decision-making until the final big contest. With the intense focus on the etabed itself, many of the actual opinions, decisions, positions, and past actions of each headman are completely erased from public memory. The etabed serves as a sort of stand in for each headman’s overall political record. So in this sense it is a chance for each headman to invent a new rhetorical and performative version of him or herself for political consumption, despite past actions/statements. Very strange stuff.

  2. PS

    I wrote: “So in this sense it is a chance for each headman to invent a new rhetorical and performative version of him or herself…”

    …yet the truth of the matter is, as Kerim points out above, while women are not formally excluded by any rules from attaining this position of “headman,” in practice they have been barred from this ritual contest since the inception of Nacirema society. Until recent years, the possibility of even considering a woman for this leadership position was completely out of the question. This, despite the fact that the Nacirema place high value on concepts akin to “justice” and “equality” and pride themselves on the democratic nature of their political system. As becomes apparent through some of these ritual contests, there is often a discrepancy between rhetoric and practice in Nacirema society.

  3. Hi Kerim…I am strugling with the meaning of “purohits”. Spelled in reverse that is “stihorup”. Can you she some light? Or have I been out of the US for too long? The original Nacirema is part of the reading lists my students have to go through and I want to add this new bit but ned first to understand this “purohit” business
    Thank you
    Ines

  4. @Steven, Without putting too fine a point on it, let me just state that the “origins” section of the Wikipedia page you linked to, links to the page I linked to above…

  5. Felt that something should be reiterated to all the ‘etabed’ watchers is that the participants spent a couple spent a couple of hours posing for the cameras and saying nothing about any ‘issues’ and making no attempt to stand for anything other than getting elected.

  6. The Nacirema etabed ritual also includes the words that the headmen say, which are not insignificant but rather comprise what Geertz would call “the culture’s message about itself.” Since the Nacirema rely on the purohit class and a highly effective information transmission system to connect their individual concerns to the idea of the Nacirema as a people, the etabed contest helps to fashion a cohesive trajectory from the past and into the future. Though the headmen’s contest seems to be partially related to which trajectory would be most beneficial to the Nacirema as a whole, widespread informant testimony suggests that the patrons have come to agreement on the fundamentals of that trajectory, which are reinforced and obfuscated by the ostensible and widely visible disagreement.

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